“Judgement at Nuremberg” (1961)


Stanley Kramer’s 1961 court drama Judgement at Nuremberg is a surprisingly complex film. Not content to focus solely on a black-and-white tale of good against evil spurred by one of the bleaker moments in human history, it injects a heavy dose of murky grey into the story where one leaves the film thinking who really ought to have been seen as responsible for the atrocities of the holocaust.

At its most basic level, the film is about the trial of four German judges who served at the bench during the Nazi regime. These are men who complied with Nazi rule, and who unjustly sentenced many people to deaths – some knowingly, others unknowingly.

The protagonist of the film is Dan Haywood (Spencer Tracy), a former District Judge from Maine who is called out for the trail. It takes place about two to three years after the war has ended, and as stated early in the film the big-wigs such as Hitler and Goebbels have long-since committed suicide. The people who are left to be tried are not the ‘bigwigs’ of the Nazi party. Instead, they are the people who went along with the rule without question of morality, and who doomed people to death even if they never actually pulled the trigger of a gun or opened the latch beneath the feet of a condemned individual about to be hung.

On the surface, the trial appears to be insignificant. Dan acknowledges that the case must be unimportant for them to call on a former district judge who was recently voted out of office by the electorate. A newspaper publisher say that it has become nearly impossible to sell stories on the Nuremberg trial, as public interest has moved on from the subject. People have listened all they needed to, and have since moved on.

As time passes on, however, this trial grows more important with the expanding Soviet Union threatening Germany, and with it all of Europe.

The trial also brings forth the question as to who, exactly, is the guilty party in Germany. Is it only the head Nazis? Those soldiers in the concentration camps? The judges? Or is it possible that everybody in Germany who turned their backs on the atrocities that were taking place to blame?

The film constantly shows ordinary German citizens on the defensive – people including the servants, many of the convicted judges, and the wife of a Nazi officer (Marlene Dietrich). They all try their best to urge an increasingly skeptical Haywood that they knew nothing about the concentration camps, and constantly trying to distance themselves from the terrible acts committed by the Nazi regime.

Defense lawyer Hans Rolfe (Maximilian Schell) says during an especially long and impassioned harangue later in the film that the trial should not merely be seen under the scope of convicting the judges or of the people of Germany – but of the entire world. Rolfe, who makes it clear that he is not entirely happy about being given the job of defending the four judges, takes the blame that the prosecution is placing on the judges and extends it to include the passive attitude in dealing with Hitler and the rise of the Third Reich leading up to the second World War.

There is also the issue raised over whether national law could ever be seen to trump international law – should one be liable for following the laws of one’s own land?

All of this makes the once-seemingly insignificant trial important, not only to the fate of Germany and the memory of the millions murdered, but the world as a whole.

This is a film that is best described as “important” – a film that is not overly flashy in its directing or entertainment value. It is simply meant to create a fictionalized documentation of what the Nuremberg Trials revealed about not only Germany, but the world as a whole.

There are two ways you can judge its direction. If you are looking at it from a technical level, there is nothing particularly special about it. Of course that could be because the majority of the film takes place in a courtroom, but Kramer’s films tend to be more about a second kind of direction: powerful acting. It reminds me of the whole debate surrounding the Best Director win for Tom Hooper and The King’s Speech over David Fincher’s work on The Social Network. What does it mean to have strong direction: is it merely the technicalities, or is it about the acting? The former, in my opinion, was about the acting while the latter was about the technicalities.

Now, I tend to fall into the former, but the latter is important as well (also I love The King’s Speech and will never forgive The Social Network for winning Best Original Score over How to Train Your Dragon – so even it’s admittedly undeserved Best Director win doesn’t bother me). From the few films I’ve seen by him, Kramer has never impressed me too much as a technical direction, save for possible the physical comedy-filled, looney tunes-esque extravaganza that was It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, but it is clear his strength lies in picking well-written screenplays (with social messages so the Hollywood liberals can pat themselves on the back for praising them) and letting his actors go wild and make the most of their characters. Perhaps it is for the best – as Kramer is best remembered for making his message films. The less flashy direction may make the message more impactful, but I see no reason why there can’t be a little character in the camera movements.

Again, the directing is very competent, but it is nothing to write home about either. At its core, Judgement at Nuremberg is an actor-driven film. Abby Mann’s Oscar-winning screenplay gives each actor and actress the opportunity to not only absorb themselves into the character each of them play, but to deliver powerful, passionate diatribes that keep one’s interest glued to the screen. After watching it the first time a couple months ago, I remember reading how some considered Judgement at Nuremberg a “masterclass.” After the second viewing I wholeheartedly agree.

As always, Spencer Tracy is excellent. This is my second time watching the film, and honestly his performance impressed me far more the second time around. He is subdued, certainly, but also powerful as the ‘moral center’ of the film who struggles to decide on what judgement ought to be cast that is the most fair and just in the wake of both the holocaust and the currently encroaching Russian threat. He does an excellent job with the role.

Maximilian Schell is excellent as the antagonistic, yet at the same time sympathetic, defense judge Hans Rolfe. You understand that he hates the job he’s been assigned, as well as that he desires to use the opportunity to grant Germany a shred of dignity in the face of adversary (which, as is pointed out in the film, is not much different than the mentality that resulted in Hitler’s rise to power). Schell may not be the ‘lead’ of the film, though he won the Best Actor Oscar, but he has such a powerful presence, that his victory does not bother me.

Montgomery Clift and Judy Garland were also very impressive, and honestly having also seen (and loved) West Side Story, I think you could very well make the argument that both of these individuals were more deserving of the supporting Oscars they were nominated for than the eventual winners.

Richard Widmark also does well as the passionate army official who is stands for the prosecution team, and is absolutely determined to stand up for the dead and convict those responsible for the evil he witnessed while liberating the labor camps following the war.

Even Burt Lancaster, who played Dr. Ernst Janning, who a lot of people seem to criticize for his role, was fantastic in my opinion. Sure his accent might not have been pitch-perfect throughout, but he gives his character such a look of sorrow and pain that words are not needed to perfectly understand everything about Janning. The moment you look into Janning’s eyes, you can tell that he is filled with a guilt that is gnawing away at him, and it gives his character a very human element despite the terrible things that he helped take part in.

It is a long film that starts off a bit slow. As it continues on, however, the last hour or so become incredibly gripping. Also, I did have to split this movie over two days since I was dead-tired after working yesterday, so I might change the score and assessment of this film when it see it a third time (which I will – I have seen it twice so far as of this review, and did enjoy it enough to justify a third viewing, and probably a purchase as well).

There is also the video montage taken of concentration camps that is shown in the courtroom. On one hand I understand why it was used in the film, to demonstrate the lengths that Lawson (Widmark, was willing to go to prove to the court that the judges were guilty and ought to be thrown in jail.

On the other hand, having such a thing be thrown into the middle of the film and take up about five minutes of screen-time sends the movie screeching to a halt and makes one feel as though they are sitting through a college lecture rather than a movie. Of course, that was the very point of the film being shown in the scene (i.e. to manipulate the emotions of the judges and people in the courtroom into finding the defendants guilty), but it still took me out of the film – especially during the second viewing which, otherwise, was far more engrossing than the first.

I also was not entirely fond of the recurring use of zoom-in shots made on characters as they made a point that Kramer or the D.O.P (Ernest Laszlo) thought needed to have a visual exclamation point put onto. Besides, it is sort of a cliche at this point (then again, was it this movie that started the quick zoom-in during a character’s ‘soapbox’ moments?). Regardless, I feel that it should have been handled differently.

Judgement at Nuremberg is a well-acted and well-written film, that just happens to focus on a fairly important topic that allows those involved to hone in on issues, themes, and messages that are far more complex than one might imagine before watching. The only issues I had with it came from its stagey direction, as well as its tendency to use techniques to show its audience how important of a film it knows it is.  

Therefore, I will give it the following score…

Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Note: This is a VERY strong 3.5/5. I was honestly very close to giving it a full-fledged 4 out of 5, but I felt that the staginess held it a little back. If there was a bit more variety in direction from Kramer, and fewer zoom-ins, I’d consider giving it a big higher score. Still recommend the film, and will likely be purchasing it.

Sources consulted:

Judgement at Nuremberg imdb

Judgement at Nuremberg wikipedia (also for poster image)


This entry was posted in 1960's, Film Review, Stanley Kramer, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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